Reopen Mai Po - H5N1 is not a threat there

Here's a letter I had published in Sunday Morning Post (26 March 2006):

Dear Sir: It's now spring, and across east Asia there has been no evidence of H5N1 in migratory wild birds this winter. Here in Hong Kong, a few resident local birds died of H5N1, their infections were likely linked to poultry smuggling around Chinese New Year. Most were in Kowloon and on Hong Kong Island, also suggesting a connection to bird markets.

Despite speculation by virologists, there is no proof that wild birds can sustain and spread H5N1; instead, as we have again just seen in Hong Kong, it typically kills them. As a result of this, plus low amounts excreted by the few ducks that may survive, infections in wild birds quickly die out.

Though natural wild bird flus are fairly common in waterbirds, H5N1 is a product of poultry farms, and has never been found at Mai Po Marshes, despite close to 20,000 birds being tested there. The poultry industry is both the source of H5N1, and the key reservoir; poultry markets are among the key means of spreading the virus.

Thus, for anyone concerned about H5N1, Mai Po Marshes is one of the safest places in Hong Kong. And yet, the government has closed Mai Po - ostensibly to protect people, by reducing contact with wild birds, even though birdwatching involves observing rather than touching them. There was no scientific basis for closing Mai Po, or aviaries (unless authorities are scared human visitors are accidentally carrying H5N1, such as on clothing), or the Wetland Park, or for halting birdwatching tours in city parks.

There is no scientific basis for the reserve's continued closure. It is time to reopen Mai Po.

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Martin Williams's picture

Well, never mind the science, the Hong Kong government has stuck to its guns, and this spring again closed Mai Po for supposed protection against H5N1 bird flu - this time after a dead swallow with H5N1 was found nearby. Led to letter to South China Morning Post from WWF Hong Kong CEO Eric Bohm, saying the closure was unnecessary, and costly for WWF, then reply from AFCD to which I responded with the following, an edited version of which appeared today:

Mai Po and the Dead Ducks Don't Fly Principle

I refer to the long and yet insubstantial letter from Dr Mary Chow, for director of agriculture, fisheries and conservation ("Public health is main concern during closure of bird reserves"), which sought to justify closures of Mai Po as a result of isolated cases of dead birds being found, and testing positive for H5N1 bird flu.

For five years, I have been active in striving to highlight the fact that wild birds do not sustain and spread virulent forms of H5N1. Overwhelmingly, birds that catch H5N1 sicken, and die: which might be summarised as "Dead Ducks Don't Fly". Yet there have been considerable efforts to show otherwise, and to blame wild birds for spreading flu; and remarkably little effort to investigate the role of the poultry industry, including extensive poultry smuggling.

As Dr Chow is aware, yet many officials and industry people are loathe to admit, highly pathogenic - highly lethal - forms of bird flu are products of the poultry industry. The virulent strains of H5N1 of concern evolved in the poultry industry - particularly in factory farming conditions that are ideally suited to evolving deadly diseases; the poultry industry has sustained H5N1, despite eradication efforts.

Hence, this "bird flu" is something of a misnomer: H5N1 would be better termed "poultry flu". There is justification for measures to limit spread within the poultry industry, particularly in crowded farms and markets rather than backyards. However, measures such as the recent closure of Mai Po because of a single dead swallow being found outside the reserve are over-reacting, and not based on science.

Extensive testing at Mai Po and - I believe - worldwide has yet to find even one apparently healthy wild bird with virulent H5N1: the Dead Ducks Don't Fly principle holds. So when all birds at Mai Po look healthy, they surely are healthy. Dr Chow notes the reserve closure would minimise human contact with wild birds and their faecal droppings. Yet I have been visiting Mai Po for some 23 years, and not once come into contact with a wild bird there; nor am I prone to touching their droppings - or eating them, as flu is not contracted through skin.

The closure decision would appear political - perhaps showing the poultry industry it is not being singled out. It not only stopped visits to the reserve in the short-term, and hit WWF-Hong Kong financially, but also contributed to undue notions that the natural world is somehow scary: we already have too many Hongkongers who are afraid of creatures like butterflies, and even nervous regarding trees. Given the "Conservation" in its name, the AFCD should be doing all it can to reverse such notions, and to stand up for wild birds and science.

It is good the government is conducting a review of the overall risk; I hope science and commonsense will prevail. I hope, too, the government will indeed work closely with WWF-HK on this front.

Martin Williams's picture

News on RTHK site includes:

[quote]The government has shelved its long-held plans to build a centralised slaughterhouse for poultry, saying the risk posed by bird flu has fallen to 'minimal' levels.[/quote]

Central slaughterhouse plan shelved

Martin Williams's picture

For more on bird flu - and evolutionary biology - see my article: Bird Flu Scary for Chickens